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Interview: Crisis Communication

Crisis communications expert Jan Karbe (ZHAW) on corporate communications in a crisis.

by EQS Editorial Team 2 min

Communications in crisis situations require practice. Recently, we were able to observe a number of negative examples of this. For instance, it took Mark Zuckerberg many days to break the silence about the Facebook data scandal. Also, during the Diesel crisis, communications were handled poorly when car companies decided to only admit to accusations that had clear evidence of occurring, while ignoring the rest.

How to best deal with crisis situations and what role digitalization is playing in these situations will be explained by Jan Karbe, lecturer for Risk and Crisis Communication at the ZHAW Zurich University of Applied Sciences where he is one of the leading Swiss experts in the field of crisis communication.

To start, what are risk and crisis communications?
Jan Karbe: Crisis communication is the targeted, planned and continuous assessment of risks and consequences. The precursor to crisis communications is the conscious managing of risks which includes internal and external observation of various environments, the collection and evaluation of data and opinions as well as dialogue with internal and external stakeholders.

What distinguishes risk communications from crisis communications?
Jan Karbe: Risk communication addresses the potential impact on target audiences of foreseeable risks and their probability of occurrence. Crisis communication is then a consequence of risk awareness, poor risk assessment, communication in the run-up to possible crises, or communication in the event of an unforeseeable crisis. Risk communication occurs in times of “relative peace” while crisis communication in the acute phase of a crisis.

Risk and Crisis Communications Require Practice and Training

It’s important to practice crisis intervention in realistic scenarios.

What impact does digitalization have on crisis communication?
Jan Karbe: Every company, independent of its size, should implement constant Social Media Monitoring as part of its communication strategy. Especially in crisis situations, an early and active participation in dialogue is obligatory, particularly via the web. By commenting and posting in a continuous and respectful way, the company can influence the developing discussion. This way, you can limit the impacts of a shitstorm crisis situation and start the recovery phase promptly.

There is a school of thought that recommends issuing an immediate “mea culpa,” to admit everything right away and proactively weaken further allegations and investigating by the media. Only then should companies begin more structured, planned communications. Should companies and organizations carefully dose admissions of wrong doing or issue an instant “mea culpa?”
Jan Karbe: In a self-inflicted corporate crisis, such as the recent Diesel crisis in the automotive industry, there were companies that admitted only as much as was clearly proven at any given time. Everything else was denied. This type of approach has almost never paid off. The media will research and investigate independently. The more that comes to light from outside investigation, the more embarrassing it will be for the companies concerned. The leaps and bounds of errors and omissions sometimes lead to media hype that can completely overheat a topic. The result is a massive loss of credibility and image. The incremental admission of errors that are well known to the company is definitively a wrong-minded crisis communication tactic.

The Biggest Mistakes in Risk and Crisis Communication

Form a team that knows how to handle crisis situations.

Let’s continue the thread: what do you think are the biggest mistakes made in risk and crisis communications and how can one avoid them?

Jan Karbe: Quite simply: stalling tactics, hasty blame, overconfidence, and fight and flight. In broader terms, an initial halting tactic is attempted first, rather than quickly and relentlessly putting all the cards on the table. Second, blame is place outwards rather than conducting a self-critical and honest assessment of the situation. Third, overconfidence – a belief that the storm will simply pass – can be fatal to a company. In this case, one is convinced that the crisis will somehow simply pass, a tactic which goes awry in most cases. The resulting costs to a company are often much higher than any communications costs saved in ignoring the problem. Fourth, confrontation and pulling up the drawbridge. The combination of fight and flight puts a spotlight on your problem for opponents to capitalize on, the last thing you need in a crisis.

Any final advice to our readers?
Jan Karbe: Learn from organizations that have weathered crises. Some have gone under as a result of their approach to a crisis, while others came out stronger. Prepare for crises as early as possible, and always start your approach from a worst-case scenario. Form a dedicated staff to handle these situation, educate them, and give the team sufficient time to train in handling of crises under realistic conditions. Situations of handling crisis communications can be practiced.

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Moritz Homann
Moritz Homann

Managing Director Corporate Compliance – EQS Group | Moritz Homann is responsible for the department of Corporate Compliance products at EQS Group. In this function, he oversees the strategic development of digital workflow solutions tailored to meet the needs of Compliance Officers around the world.